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Big Bend '17: No. 19 - Sunrise Finale

All good things must come to an end, even in Big Bend where time's great influence seems to wane. I had already spent a good portion of the night photographing the haunting environment of a full moon at perigee, but I would have been remiss if I had slept through my final sunrise out in the desert. It wasn't easy to pull myself from my warm bed, but the sunrise was well worth the small sacrifice. The journey home that day would be a long 11 hour haul, so I soaked up my final minutes of cool, quiet tranquility.

The moon set slowly in the glow of sunrise, dipping ever closer to Paint Gap
Moonset over the mountains of Paint Gap

On that final night, the unwelcome vibration of my alarm rippled through my nice, warm sleeping bag and drew me unwillingly from my brief respite. My weary eyes greeted nearly the same overly-bright night sky that I had abandoned only a few hours prior after a long night of photography. Now more than ever, the brilliant moon cast a thin veil across the heavens that dulled the broad canopy of stars, and the glow of an impending sunrise all but guaranteed their inescapable demise.

I retrieved my clothes from the warm foot of the bag, and changed as quietly as I could while my tent-mate slept. I pulled my camera batteries from a side pocket near the top of the bag and slipped them into my jacket pocket, having already suffered the pain of cold, unresponsive batteries on a previous adventure. After a brief glance inside my frozen boots for any unexpected guests, I pulled them on and immediately neutralized any comfort that my warm socks had previously given me. After drawing the door to the tent closed, I stood up and instinctively shook to counter the exhaustion and cold. The gravel shifted noisily as I made my way over to the truck to fish out my remaining gear, and I silently wondered to myself if this was really a good idea after all.

The clamor of my drowsy movements accented the growing chirp and song of the birds hiding in the vegetation around me. There are few things as beautiful as a crisp morning in the desert before sunrise, even if multiple nights of poor sleep may have muffled it a little bit. We hadn't slept well for the majority of the trip since the large, vibrant moon remained inescapably bright all night long, and the weather wasn't quite cold or dry enough to warrant the tent fly. As expected, the moon still taunted me from well above the opposing horizon, even as the warm glow of the sunrise built in the East.

Across the Chihuahuan Desert, the gnarled remnants of long dead trees still stretched the husks of their sun-dried arms into the sky, and caught the brilliant, warm glow of a revitalized sun. The desert scrub crowded the sandy earth uninvitingly with sharp barbs and jagged leaves, promptly crushing my desire to bush-wack into their midst to track down the rabbits, foxes, and other animals that I could hear moving within.

As the sunrise lit up the unmistakeable ridge of the Chisos Mountain range, we knew it was time to start the nearly 600 mile trip back home. It is always hard to leave a place like Big Bend, especially once we heard that the cold weather we had been longing for would be coming through in just a few days. Sure enough, we only just missed an extremely rare snowfall in the Chihuahuan Desert. I’m sure the nights in the teens would have been difficult, but I think it would have been worth it for the view.

With our gear hastily stowed in the big Ford truck, we jumped in and headed for Gano Springs Rd with a large cloud of dust spinning in our wake. The striking peaks of the Chisos basin faded slowly over the horizon as we headed out of the park, until it was nothing but flat desert and stunted plateaus all over again. We back-tracked through Marathon, but instead of continuing North to the I10 route that had lead us to the park, we diverted to a more Easterly route along US-90 E that saved us some time and provided slightly new scenery.

The road was barren, dry, and isolated. We were often the only car in sight with nothing but the desert on all sides for company. The feeling of isolation was broken up occasionally by a lone passing car, usually branded with long green stripes and "US Border Patrol" along the side. Billowing dust along the dirt road that paralleled the Southern side of the highway was often just a Border Patrol vehicle towing tires to smooth out the fine dirt so new foot traffic would be more visible. It was a momentary window into the bleak reality of border security in South Texas.

We briefly passed through Sanderson where some of the movie "No Country for Old Men" is set, though the only scenes filmed in Texas were completed further to the Northwest in the eclectic city of Marfa (famed home of the alleged ghost lights). Had we blinked, we might have missed Sandreson entirely as is common this far West in Texas. This endless repetition of barren desert and small towns was finally broken up with the welcome view of water sprawling out from all sides as we passed over the serpentine-shaped Amistad Reservoir that shares miles of border between the US and Mexico. We didn't have time to stop, but it was a welcome change in scenery.

Many hours later, we finally arrived in San Antonio where Travis's trip ended. I repacked my gear into my Subaru Outback and began the rest of the trip to Houston alone. The stretch of I10 between San Antonio and Houston is so familiar to me that it passes by now almost without any notice. I drove with a tired, zombie-like focus on the road immediately in front of me, kept awake largely by the compelling stories weaved in my favorite podcasts: Critical Role and The Adventure Zone. As I finally reached the welcome site of my driveway, my body ached for a non-seated position as far away from a vehicle as possible. The long trip home had already engendered a renewed longing for the mountains, but upon arriving home this longing was quelled by the smile of my pregnant wife, and the promise of the little boy I couldn't wait to meet.

Even though I had abandoned the desert of Big Bend, the desert was determined not to leave me. Every single piece of equipment was covered in a thin film of desert dust that needed to be cleaned by hand out of every nook, fold, and crevice. After working for days to get through the remnants of Big Bend that had traveled back to Houston (the polar opposite of a desert) with me, I carefully packed it all back into our closet where it would wait anxiously, like me, for the next great adventure.

© 2017-2020 Shaun C Tarpley


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